By Rich Bartell, U.S. Army Africa Public Affairs August 10, 2011
VICENZA, ITALY - Recently, more than 40 U. S. Army Africa leaders took part in a staff ride to explore Italian World War I battles in the mountainous regions of Italy and Slovenia. The tour focused on trench warfare culminating in the Battle of Caporetto that began on Oct. 24, 1917.
Taking part in the three-day staff ride were USARAF Commander Maj. Gen. David R. Hogg along with a group of staff civilians, officers, senior non-commissioned officers and Italian Army officers.
According to Italian Professor Paolo Pozzato, a military historian and former Italian Army officer, the Italian Army experienced a surprising defeat during the Battle of Caporetto. He said the battle created conditions from which the Italian Army never fully recovered.
German, Austrian and Hungarian divisions overwhelmed the Italians, causing massive casualties and capturing large amounts of armament. Many historians agree that this battle was likely the most devastating of World War I with Italians suffering more than 40,000 dead and wounded; more than 280,000 prisoners and more than 3,000 captured artillery pieces.
Pozzato and two other Italian military history experts acted as guides during the three day staff ride that featured bus and walking tours of World War I military museums, memorials and battlefield sites.
For USARAF Operations Sgt. Major Frank Lauer, the staff ride presented a new perspective of World War I.
“When most Americans think of World War I trench warfare, it’s normally fighting in France alongside the British. This staff ride really showed the tremendous sacrifice Italians made in defending their country,” Lauer said. “It’s not something we see a lot of in our history books.”
In what is now Kobarid, Slovenia, there is a military museum where a large portion of the displays are dedicated to the Battle of Caporetto. At the Kobarid Museum, Pozzato discussed Italian positions as they were during the battle of Caporetto. Pozzato said the speed and fury of the German and Austrian attack at Caporetto forshadowed the blitzkrieg tactics the German Army would use in World War II some 20 years later.
According to Italian Maj. Savio of the USARAF G-3 Operations, even today Italians use the term “It was a Caporetto,” -- referring to something that is, or was a complete disaster.
Savio translated for the Italian military history experts who were guides on the staff ride.
Lt. Col. Angel Mesa, USARAF Operations training chief, explained the reasoning behind staff rides.
“Staff rides have been a part of Army culture for many years. This was a great opportunity to learn more about, and partner with our Italian hosts. It was also a great opportunity to see another historical perspective of World War I and how we can use some of the lessons learned for ourselves as we look at conflicts now,” Mesa said.
During World War I, nearly half of Italy’s adult male population was mobilized. They suffered more 680,000 troops lost their lives and 1.5 million were injured. Many of those casualties were the result of ferocious fights in trench lines that were visited by the participants of the USARAF staff ride.